This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Framing the Systems Practice Framing Question

The last blog post dealt with the Systems Practice Guiding Star and Near Star, both of which are future-oriented. This post will deal with the related Systems Practice idea of a Framing Question. A Framing Question focuses on understanding the system to be analyzed in its current configuration and to be ultimately affected to bring about the Guiding Star.

At this point, we are beginning to seek to understand what creates the forces which maintain the system in its current configuration, without passing judgment on either side. By understanding these forces we may then hope to leverage some of them to move the system towards our Guiding Star. How we do that will be based in part on how we format the Framing Question:

1.  One way is to ask what are the forces that affect the ability to improve the system for everyone?

2.  Another way is to propose you can’t understand how something enables or inhibits a healthy system unless you understand fill in the blank.

However, as one objective is to potentially incorporate Systems Thinking and Practice into democratic processes this post will also deal with framing from the perspective of democratic deliberation though more through Governance through Community rather than elected representatives. This takes the Framing Question a further step as well as expanding its inclusion.

The Kettering Foundation, as part of Governance through Community, recognizes that one of the biggest challenges facing communities is developing the capacity of Working thru Difficult Decisions. Because ostensibly, "Deliberation seems like neurosurgery or something only an outsider can do” this can make some fearful of attempting it.

”The Kettering Foundation has found that sound decisions are more likely to be made when people weigh—carefully and fairly—all of their options for acting on problems against what they consider most valuable for their collective well-being. This is deliberative decision making. It not only takes into consideration facts but also recognizes the less tangible things that people value, such as their safety and their freedom to act.”

Their suggested approach is Naming Framing Difficult Issues for Sound Decisions

”The obvious question is, what would motivate citizens to invest their limited time and other resources in grappling with problems brimming with conflict-laden, emotionally charged disagreements? Generally speaking, people avoid conflict, and they don’t usually invest their energy unless they see that something deeply important to them, their families, and their neighbors is at stake. And they won’t get involved unless they believe there is something they, themselves, must do.”

”These differences don’t necessarily become divisive, however, especially when people recognize that although they don’t share the same circumstances, they share the same basic concerns. In deliberative decision making, people can see that they both agree and disagree. This encourages them to agree to disagree and lessens the likelihood of polarization."

The National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation (NCDD) asked the question “How might we make our D&D work more equitable, inclusive and empowering?” One of their objectives involved Framing which for them meant ensuring that the community is the key framer of the issue(s).

This was seen, however, while a civic issue, not a priority one. It was connected by systems maps through (Kumu) clustering to similar concerns from the categories of access, trust, and barriers.

The priority NCDD issue to which it was connected was “Celebrate individuals who have opposing views rather than attempting to marginalize them”. Taking their concerns of equity, inclusion, and empowerment to an individual human level.

Another resource, the Community Tool Box, by the Center for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas, featured in Community Tech Tools and Healthy Cities pages of the NCP wiki discusses framing and reframing more in terms of initial implementation, having the idea accepted.

Frame a powerful question”, a Deloitte Insights article, has us ask questions that focus on the learning opportunity and that can provoke and inspire others to change the game for longer-term results.

The following are the Framing Questions for the last three Systems Practice projects. Each is uniquely associated with its particular project but they also differ in their scope and boundaries as well as whether they focus on institutional factors or are more people focused.

For the “Last Mile Food Truck Feeding the Unsheltered Homeless” project the Framing Question was:

“What are the factors and their relationships in the "Access to Food(Healthy) system" and in the environment that are lacking for the homeless population and that would determine the real impact of the food truck on getting people back into the community once introduced?

As part of this question we will also be asking:

1. What prevents those struggling with homelessness from accessing available Food(Healthy) resources?

2. What prevents Food service providers from accessing their target demographic (homeless, or those who are unstable and threatened with homelessness)?”

For the Plastic Pollution project, the team leader came up with the more succinct final version of the Framing Question.

”What forces account for the current levels of plastic pollution in Bangkok?”

Our course catalyst for the project, Yeu advised us:

“The framing question can be more targeted towards discovering the forces at the bottom of the iceberg, i.e. the beliefs and perceptions of stakeholders. Here in also lies the crux of the direction that your guiding star can provide”.

Tying it back to the Guiding Star and potentially expanding the inclusion of a greater number and diversity of stakeholders. If this can't be accomplished in the initial stages of the Systems Practice project, it could be at later stages even after completion of the course.

How you frame a system and how others see you framing it influences how those others will interpret it, even if you didn’t use either Systems Thinking or Systems Practice to build it.

In the blog post A Second Look at Neoliberalism with a Community Face and Asset Based Community Development, a particular Scottish perspective saw ABCD efforts as framing notions of civil society and citizenship as being separate and independent of any notion of state responsibility (though not removed from as the article’s authors state), thereby promoting privatization of public life. A position totally at odds with ABCD’s own perspective of itself.

Although NCP wrote in opposition to the Scottish perspective, it still demonstrates the importance of the Framing Question being asked of the system you are investigating, even after the Systems Practice course is completed.

Our Framing Question for Jerusalem Vision is:

“What forces encourage or discourage interaction, trust, and understanding between members of the different communities?”

Some of the factors involved in the system were framed as “Tribalism," which could be seen as controversial though it could be pointed out that tribalism exists in American politics and other areas of the world. As for framing the question within the current geopolitical situation our team leader Yoel, the only one of us to actually live within the system in question advised us to avoid pie-in-the-sky thinking as what we are addressing is a different model of rights/privileges/collaboration than found in the Western democracies.

“The West cannot come into the Middle East (e.g., Iraq) and expect a millennium of entrenched religious and social conventions to change overnight to mirror its Western cultural values and beliefs. There has to be a middle ground where the West's positive values meet the East's traditions, customs, and mores and find a synthesis that embodies the best of both worlds without relinquishing the benefit of either!”

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Helps Set Course for Systems Practice Guiding Star

The last three blog posts were a detour from the current look at the Systems Practice Jerusalem Vision project to review underlying Systems Thinking principles through Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems, A Primer”.  Addressing the two new levels of inquiry that we are asking others to adopt to address wicked problems, the first being the controversial events that describe but don't really define such problems.

Arguably, for many for whom the course is a one-off to address some specific issue, this may not be important but if Systems Practice were to be adopted as a standard means of addressing a host of issues over the long term then a better understanding of Systems Thinking becomes basically essential in my view.

Meadow tells us that all systems are composed of elements, connections and, most importantly, a purpose or function. The fulfillment of that purpose or function is a goal of that system, perhaps subsidiary, perhaps primary. Both she and, especially Stafford Beer advise us that the Purpose Of A System Is What It Does.

With each System Practice course project, we decide that a system, with which we are involved, should have different goals and therefore different purposes and functions. We don't actually know fully the goals, purposes or functions of the system in its current configuration, except perhaps for some that may be espoused, but we are first going to decide what is it, what new state, that we are trying to attain. The Systems Practice course does this by establishing a Guiding Star

In each of the Systems Practice projects we did not have a common vision when first thrown together. It slowly came together beginning with either the creation of a Complexity Spectrum or online brainstorming or both to determine whether we were dealing with a complicated (clock) problem or a complex (cloud) one. 

At first, our ideas were often directed at finding silver bullet solutions to the problem rather than developing a better understanding of the system under question. Reacting to the current situation rather than proactively planning to navigate to a desired future states by a Guiding Star. 

The concept of developing a Guiding Star was previously considered in New Community Paradigms with setting superordinate goals as part of the series Exploring with the Dialogue, Deliberation and Systemic Transformation Community to Discover New Possibilities

The formal description for that effort was, "What superordinate goal could replicate across the collective set of value systems, and act as a 'guiding star' for systemic transformation?”, which our facilitator paraphrased as, "What everyone wants, but no one entity can do themselves." 

The Guiding Star, according to the Acumen Systems Practice course, is an aspirational state or desired future.

A mistake in the first Systems Practice course, by me, was skimping over the Guiding Star, as well as the Near Star and Framing Question, which were created in large part by the group I was leading. I had a working systems map by that time and thought that I already had the needed insights. My approach saw our role as providing answers for consumption by a community, dismissing any concern for democratic deliberation or diversity.

Our collective vision of what that purpose or goal should be still needed to be developed. It was, and I had some input, but it was the conglomeration of about nine different perspectives. For the group dealing with food trucks for homeless campsites the Guiding Star was:

"A societal structure in which, when a person’s community support system fails, he receives appropriate, sufficient and timely support to prevent him from falling into homelessness through a community system that produces minimally decent shelter, sustenance and healthcare for those who become homeless working to integrate them fully back into the community."

During the Thailand Plastic Pollution project it was as decided by those defining the project:

"We are trying to move the City of Bangkok and the entire country of Thailand from both being blighted by and blighting oceans with plastic pollution to being plastic pollution-free." 

Our course catalyst for the project, Yeu advised us that:

"Guiding stars are best described as a vivid future state that provides a direction rather than measured goals. In that respect, do every member of your team share a common understanding of the difference between a system state that is healthier than a previous state? In your case, a less plastic-polluted state than another? Counting plastic items is not a good idea. So what is?”

The point is that there is more to being healthy than merely not being sick. He recommended, which I have also, the use of the "Systems Thinking Iceberg" Another potentially useful resource "Donella Meadows 12 places to leverage systems", emphasizes paradigm shifts in the beliefs and perceptions of stakeholders. It became the basis for the blog post "Dana" Meadows Helps Find Purpose and the Plastic in a System of Plastic Pollution.”

Based on these insights, I advised the Jerusalem Vision team that the Guiding Star should not be a blueprint of an ideal system. It is more giving reason for you wanting to create the ideal system or what it will be to drive you to want to create it, what you hope to achieve to drive you forward through times of hardship and struggle. Being an ideal, it isn't merely delivering the basics but it also won’t attain a level of finality either.

Our Guiding Star for Jerusalem Vision became: 

  • "We are trying to move towards a social system that always strives to achieve win-win solutions for all involved."
  • "We aspire to a Jerusalem where every resident has equal access to health services, education, employment opportunities, cultural services and regardless of race, culture, gender, socioeconomic background, or other human difference by fostering mutual trust and respect between all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants." 
  • "We aspire to a Jerusalem where all communities have a basic trust in the system and bear a mutual respect for the rights of all other communities in Jerusalem and uphold the value of mutual collaboration." 
  • "We aspire to achieve a social reality in Jerusalem where all communities feel secure in their identity while respecting the identities of other communities." 

The Near Star is a more near-term goal of a 5-10 year timeframe, a desired but provisional outcome towards the Guiding Star.

The Near Star, I suggested to the team, is not the most basic or least viable result or one that meets minimum requirements of the system that we have in mind. The Near Star, at least in my view, should be the system that we need to put in place to begin to move towards the Guiding Star, not a lesser version of the Guiding Star. While still being expansive enough that it isn't a clockwork objective.

Our first Near Star for Thailand Plastic Pollution was: 

“Bangkok City actors are able to work effectively toward reducing plastic pollution.”

The term “city actors" sounded too institutional or government oriented. It could include community actors but too often from the perspective of those in power. The more community-based term “stakeholders” with the definition being an entity that can affect or is affected by the wicked problem was used contingent with it being as inclusive as possible which would mean expanding outreach and increasing the complexity of overall interactions.

"Stakeholders, who can affect and are affected by plastic pollution in Thailand are able to work effectively toward the elimination of plastic waste." 

Our officially submitted Near Star for Jerusalem Vision is:

"Creating contexts and environments where members of different communities learn and work together encouraging the growth of mutual respect between them as individuals."

Unofficially, for the Jerusalem Vision project we decided that instead of looking at the Near Star as a stepping stone (milestone) toward the larger target (Guiding Star) we would embrace it as a "sandbox" where we could test our understanding of the system to see if we understood it enough to take even more daring steps to influence it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Provides a Primary Systems Thinking Review pt 3

It is about time for the usual reminder given with posts on Systems Practice and other courses. This blog post series on Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems - A Primer” is not a substitute for reading the book. Read the book. This is only my perspective on what I have learned from Donella Meadows’ lessons in particular and Systems Thinking in general.

The last post discussed what was important to discern about systems (purpose or function), the constrained roles of leaders, and feedback loops, particularly balancing loops used to regulate. Balancing feedback loops though don’t work only through human or programmed decisions, they also work through physical laws.

“Whatever the initial value of the system stock (coffee temperature in this case), whether it is above or below the “goal” (room temperature), the feedback loop brings it toward the goal. The change is faster at first, and then slower, as the discrepancy between the stock and the goal decreases”.

It is based on a function as discussed in the blog posts on the Complexity Explorer course.

We are used to (I am) thinking of goals as being tied to a purpose (the purpose of this activity is to attain that goal), so something is imposed to change the current situation from what it is to what we want. Which may be part of the reason we often have difficulty discerning purpose or function, if it’s a matter of maintaining the system’s own integrity rather than what we want.

The goal or better function (the purpose is the goal) of a river is to flow into a lake or ocean. The river does not do this intentionally on purpose. Rather it is a step or function in a feedback loop of the world’s hydrology system and subsequently an element in many other systems, including ecological, fishing and shipping.

Meadows makes another important point, That balancing feedback mechanisms don’t always work, at least not as we want. They may not be capable of bringing the stock to the desired level, interconnections, especially the information part of the system may fail, arrive too late or at the wrong place or be unclear or incomplete or hard to interpret. Actions triggered may be too weak or delayed or be resource-constrained or simply ineffective. Breakdowns in a system should be differentiated though from poor system design.

Goal-seeking or stabilizing balancing loops are not the only type of feedback loops. Reinforcing loops, the second type of the two, exist when an element (or stock) within a system has the ability to reproduce itself growing at a constant fraction of itself as with populations and economies.

They are amplifying, reinforcing, self-multiplying. They can either cause healthy growth in a virtuous circle or runaway destruction in a vicious one enhancing the direction of change that is imposed upon on it with the capacity of snowballing. Generating more input to a stock the more it has and less input the less it has with each iteration.

This is not simple linear growth at a constant rate over time. It is exponential growth. Again, following the path of functions like the logistic equation discussed in the Complexity Explorer series.

I believe that another point can be derived from what Meadows has said about feedback loops and the connections or flows through which they operate. They invariably require energy. Reinforcing loops always require energy, as with life sustained through energy from the sun for populations. A balancing loop may simply be turned on or off based on attaining a goal (information feedback) but often can also require additional energy to act as a countervailing force.

Think of Meadows’ example of a coffee cup cooling but replace it with an unplugged refrigerator being defrosted. The function remains the same. The change from the initial value to goal follows the same functional path. It can also be considered a balancing loop. Plugging the refrigerator back in involves applying energy. Electric energy is converted to mechanical energy which is used to cool again the food inside. A decision is made as to where to set the desired temperature and another balancing loop is put into effect.

The first balancing loop used the second law of thermodynamics allowing the refrigerator to go naturally from a lower state of entropy to a higher one. The second balancing loop, still following the second law, forced the closed system through the input of energy into a lower state of entropy although it increased overall (higher) entropy in the environment.

Reinforcing loops in this scenario could be the increasing use of energy to power the refrigerators because of increasing population and decreasing resources. More people means more refrigerators bought especially if economic circumstances improve for some and that means more energy consumed depended upon dwindling fuel supplies. Real world, physical systems will involve entropy. This could be considered a source for so-called unintended consequences of systems.

A stock then can have several reinforcing and balancing loops of differing strengths pulling it in several directions. A system’s different feedback loops can make the systems stocks grow, decrease until eliminated or coming into balance with other flows in the system. A flow may be adjusted by the contents of a number of different stocks, filling one stock while draining another while feeding (via information) into decisions affecting yet another one.

Feedback loops are easier to understand as graphics such as systems maps than as written words. ”Pictures work for this language better than words, because you can see all the parts of a picture at once”. This means though learning, as was said in the first post of this series, a new way of doing things, a new way of thinking, a new cognitive grammar capable of inquiring into and understanding systems. There are online programs and communities attached to them that can help with this. My go-to choice is Kumu.

However, anyone somewhat familiar with this New Community Paradigms effort in general and more specifically with the approach to Systems Thinking and of Systems Practice will know that neither the Acumen course nor usually I, use Stock and Flow models. (When I do, I use Insight Maker) The Systems Practice course and I instead use Kumu to create Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs).

CLDs include (conceptually) elements and connections as do Stock and Flow Models but they don’t have explicit quantifiable stocks, and while flows can be quantified, connections in CLDs are not. The preference for CLDs is that they are conceptually easier to work with and more intuitive for others to understand. However, Meadows (and others) has convinced me that we should at least be thinking of what the stocks would be, whether physical or intangible and what paths the connected flows would take to ascertain that the system in question is having a manifested and not an imaginary impact on the world.

Meadow speaks of challenging her students (and readers) to think of human decisions that occur without a feedback loop, a decision made without regard to information about the level of the stock being influenced with “falling in love” and “committing suicide” being the most common supposed “non-feedback” decisions. The motivations for both are intangible so we can have difficulty with thinking in terms of stocks and flows but our world is materially different when the state of the world exists either with them or without them and if it does with either that it can quickly snowball in that particular direction upon reaching a tipping point.

In real systems, feedback flows are linked together, often in fantastically complex patterns going beyond being limited to only one of three basic states of being steady or approaching goals smoothly or exploding exponentially.

”Watch out! If you see feedback loops everywhere, you’re already in danger of becoming a systems thinker! Instead of seeing only how A causes B, you’ll begin to wonder how B may also influence A—and how A might reinforce or reverse itself”. When you hear in the nightly news that the Federal Reserve Bank has done something to control the economy, you’ll also see that the economy must have done something to affect the Federal Reserve Bank. When someone tells you that population growth causes poverty, you’ll ask yourself how poverty may cause population growth."

The world then becomes dynamic, not static and the essential question becomes “what is the system?”, rather than who or which side is to blame.

The concept that a system can cause its own behavior through feedback is not an intuitive idea, though living with it in the real world sometimes seems it may be We ourselves are complex entities displaying emergent properties of life, consciousness (and I would assert free will), creating through our interactions with others the emergent existence of societies, cities and nations. We seem to live with the inherent complexity already underlying our lives and learning more about it doesn't need to impair our ability to live our lives. It is rapid, new and non-coherent complexity which makes us afraid of dealing with wicked problems, deferring them instead. More problems then arise because our decisions can be based on an assumed unchanging state of affairs and our own biases.

This is the end for now of the look at Donella Meadows’ “Thinking in Systems - A Primer”. Again, read the book. Up to this point, she has covered the basics and has provided enough material to return to the Jerusalem Vision Systems Practice project in the next post.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Provides a Primary Systems Thinking Review pt 2

Continuing the look at Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems - A Primer”, the previous post described systems as consisting of elements, interconnections, and, most importantly, function or purpose.

Elements are the most noticeable parts of systems and usually the least important in defining the unique characteristics of the system unless they can change relationships or purpose. Changing relationships usually change system behavior. A system may be dramatically altered if its interconnections are changed.

The most crucial determinant though of a system’s behavior is often its function or purpose despite being the least obvious part of a system. A change in function or purpose can be drastic, changing a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection in the system remains the same. For myself, this means that if two systems have the same elements but a different set of interconnections between those elements and different purposes then they can be considered distinct systems.

These are, however, all abstract concepts. To deal with changes physically manifested in the world Systems Thinking uses the more ”concrete” concept of stocks. A stock is an accumulation of material or information built up over time and, according to Meadows, is the foundation of any system. Stocks are the elements of the system that can be seen, felt, counted, or measured at any given point in time. A stock, like elements of which stocks are comprised, does not have to be physical.

A system makes a manifested change in the world, whether through physical means, a river turning turbines or intangible, economic uncertainty leading to the election of a right-wing government.

”If you understand the dynamics of stocks and flows—their behavior over time—you understand a good deal about the behavior of complex systems”.

Stocks change over time through the actions of flows, both in and out. “A stock, then, is the present memory of the history of changing flows within a system”. Stocks are therefore not static. Even if in a state of dynamic equilibrium in which the level of a stock does not change, there is a continuous flow through it. This may give the appearance of unchanging permanence.

It is much more difficult to change the level of the stock abruptly than it is to adjust a flow. Stocks, especially large ones, respond only gradually to change, even sudden change. A vital, key point to understanding why systems behave as they do is that “a stock takes time to change, because flows take time to flow”. Stocks usually change slowly, acting as delays, lags, buffers, ballast, making them sources of momentum in a system.

”People often underestimate the inherent momentum of a stock. It takes a long time for populations to grow or stop growing, for wood to accumulate in a forest, for a reservoir to fill up, for a mine to be depleted”.

The presence of stocks allows inflows and outflows to be independent of each other and, moreover, to be temporarily out of balance with each other.

We seem to be more capable of focusing on stocks than on flows and on inflows more than on outflows. Often failing to see that a stock can be increased by decreasing its outflow rate as well as by increasing its inflow rate.

Humans have invented hundreds of stock-maintaining mechanisms through individual and institutional decisions designed to regulate the levels in stocks and to make inflows and outflows both independent and stable. Monitoring stocks constantly, making decisions to take actions designed to raise or lower stocks or to keep them within acceptable ranges. Those decisions, along with the mechanisms for regulating the levels in the stocks by manipulating flows, add to a collection of “feedback processes.

"Systems of information-feedback control are fundamental to all life and human endeavor, from the slow pace of biological evolution to the launching of the latest space satellite. . . . Everything we do as individuals, as an industry, or as a society is done in the context of an information-feedback system".

—Jay W. Forrester 

Feedback mechanisms are then a mechanism that operates through a feedback loop to create consistent behavior that persists over time. Feedback loops can cause stocks to maintain their level within a range or grow or decline. Flows into or out of a stock are adjusted based on changes in the size of the stock itself. Whoever or whatever is monitoring the stock’s level begins a corrective process, adjusting rates of inflow or outflow (or both) and so changes the stock’s level. The stock level feeds back through a chain of signals (information) and actions (physical changes) to control itself.

A feedback loop is then formed when changes in a stock affect the flows into or out of that same stock. A bank interest-bearing savings account is a simple and direct feedback loop. The total amount of money in the account (the stock) affects the amount of money coming into the account as interest (the flow) based on earning a certain percent interest each year. The total amount of interest paid into the account each year (the flow in) is not a fixed amount, but varies depending on the size of the total amount in the account (stock) and increases the stock amount by that much for the next iteration.

The stock is adjusted by the flows into or out because of changes in the size of the stock itself. A corrective process is taken then by whoever or whatever is monitoring the stock’s level, adjusting rates of inflow or outflow (or both) and thereby changing the stock’s level. The stock level feeds back through a chain of signals (information) and actions to control itself.

  • As long as the sum of all outflows exceeds the sum of all inflows, the level of the stock will fall.
  • As long as the sum of all inflows exceeds the sum of all outflows, the level of the stock will rise.
  • If the sum of all outflows equals the sum of all inflows, the stock level will not change; it will be held in dynamic equilibrium at whatever level it happened to be when the two sets of flows became equal.

Not all systems have feedback loops. Some systems are relatively simple open-ended chains of stocks and flows. They still have elements, interconnections and function or purpose and might be affected by outside factors, but the levels of the systems own stocks wouldn't affect its own flows.

If the feedback mechanism tries to keep a stock at a given value or within a range of values through a stabilizing, goal-seeking, regulating loop it is called a balancing feedback loop.

”A balancing feedback loop opposes whatever direction of change is imposed on the system. If you push a stock too far up, a balancing loop will try to pull it back down. If you shove it too far down, a balancing loop will try to bring it back up”.

The idea being that if one knows all the dynamic possibilities of say a simple bathtub model one could deduce several important principles that can be usefully extended to more complicated systems.

Systems can also have an appropriate time horizon to the system question or problem being investigated allowing one to question what came before, and what might happen next. This helps to understand trends of system behavior over time instead of focusing too much attention on individual, (and all too often immediate) events. Behavior-over-time graphs can help with determining if a system is approaching a goal or a limit, and how quickly.

Whether elements or stocks, they are still models that we create of the real world. All models, whether mental models or mathematical models are still simplifications of that real world, subject t0 the often quoted George Box aphorism, “All models are wrong, some models are useful”.

Meadow also speaks of leaders in control of a system being able to, “play a different game with new rules, or can direct the play toward a new purpose”. However, she also says that (because stocks can be), “long-lived, slowly changing, physical elements of the system, there is a limit to the rate at which any leader can turn the direction of a nation”. So they too often make empty promises, changes that fail and blame the other side.

“Changes in stocks (by a country) set the pace of the dynamics of systems. Industrialization cannot proceed faster than the rate at which factories and machines can be constructed and the rate at which human beings can be educated to run and maintain them”.

While time lags coming from slowly changing stocks can cause problems in systems, they also can be sources of stability. “If you have a sense of the rates of change of stocks, you don’t expect things to happen faster than they can happen. You don’t give up too soon”.

This sense cannot, however, be held by only a few. Our existing entrenched systems make it too easy to choose leaders that really don’t have our best interests in mind even if well-meaning in their hearts. In this use “our” is meant to be applied as expansively and inclusively as possible. The question then is can democratic processes be applied in using Systems Thinking? The answer suggested by Systems Practice and from New Community Paradigms so far seems to be yes.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Provides a Primary Systems Thinking Review pt 1

During my recent trip to China, I took the opportunity to read Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems - A Primer”. Despite being featured in an NCP wiki-page, I had procrastinated about reading it. Part of the motivation to finally read it was dealing with the complex and controversial issue of Jewish Palestinian relations in Jerusalem using the still being tested methodology of Systems Practice based on principles of Systems Thinking. Three different levels of involved interaction utilized to deal with a wicked problem. The book reminded me or helped me to better understand or made me realize the importance and relevance behind the logic of a number of Systems Thinking principles and in many ways tie them into other New Community Paradigms efforts. It is what I wish I had known better and for others to know before taking the Systems Practice courses by Acumen

This is, however, my own summary of her work and my interpretation which has changed the order of the presentation of ideas, adding others (sometimes in parenthesis) derived from prior inquiries. Meadows provides far more examples. Direct and notable quotes by her are in italics.

The book, as Meadows informs us, is about a different way of seeing and thinking. People are often wary of the word “systems” and, if they have heard of it, the field of systems analysis, despite having been arguably doing some form of systems thinking all their lives. There is both a recognition of and a resistance to systems principles and especially to new ways of thinking. I suspect that it is still more of the later, resistance for most people than the former despite the Editor’s Note suggesting it is widely accepted (certainly not mainstream) making the remainder of the quote all the more frustrating:

”Today, it is widely accepted that systems thinking is a critical tool in addressing the many environmental, political, social, and economic challenges we face around the world. Systems, big or small, can behave in similar ways, and understanding those ways is perhaps our best hope for making lasting change on many levels.”

At the first page of the main body of the book, Meadows starts off with a quote, a previously cited observation that managers confront dynamic situations consisting of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. Russell Ackoff called such situations messes, ”Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes”.

”It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away”. Yet they persist in spite of any analytical ability and technical insights that have been directed toward solving them. They are intrinsically systems problems— characteristic of system structures that produce undesirable behaviors. Except that we too often don't recognize them as such.

Part of the problem is that Western society has so greatly benefited from science, logic, and reductive analysis over intuition and holism solving some serious problems by focusing on external agents and what I would refer to as complicated processes usually involving top-down command management. Past solutions are now though are either not working or are now becoming problems. A systems approach is not meant to be seen as being better though than a reductionist approach in thinking. They're complementary and as a result all the more revealing combined. The problem is that we are not close to being balanced and certainly not erring on the side of systems and holism.

Limiting discussion of systems to only words and sentences, which are restricted to only one at a time in a linear and (set) logical order, can also be a problem. Systems in the real world happen all at once being connected in many directions (along with multiple dimensions) simultaneously making it necessary to use a language (e.g. graphics systems mapping) that shares some of the same properties as the phenomena being examined. This also requires new thinking, a new cognitive grammar capable of inquiring into and understanding systems.

Meadows’ book defines a system as an interconnected set of elements coherently organized to achieve some function or purpose consisting of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and, most importantly, its particular function or purpose. Without the interconnections structured to produce behavior that results in a function or a purpose, it is not a system. It is more than the sum of its parts. Water is more than the sum of oxygen and hydrogen. Life is more than the separate inorganic chemical elements of which it consists.

There is an integrity or wholeness about a system and an active set of mechanisms (based on interconnections between elements) to maintain that integrity. Systems can be self-organizing, and often are self-repairing within some range of disruptions. Systems can change, adapt, respond to events, seek goals, mend injuries. They are resilient. A system can exhibit adaptive, dynamic, goal-seeking, self-preserving, and even evolutionary behavior. Even if consisting of nonliving elements, it can still attend to its own survival in ways that mimic life.

Using a slinky, Meadows demonstrates this inherent vitality of a system that some external ”thing” (her hands) manipulates (held or taken away) so as to suppress or release some behavior (bouncing up and down) that is latent within the structure (of the spring of the slinky). It was not some external force within the hands holding the slinky that caused the slinky to bounce up and down. The hand merely acts as a valve to inherent forces (kinetic energy) within the slinky. There is a relationship between the structure and behavior of the slinky, understood here to be an instance of a system.

”The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.” The dynamic force of change comes from within the system itself, not externally. We don't impose solutions onto systems we reveal them.

Elements are not only physical entities. Intangibles can also be part of a system. While some interconnections in systems are actual physical flows, many are flows of information —signals sent to decision points or action points within a system which are often harder to determine. ”The interconnections in the tree system are the physical flows and chemical reactions that govern the tree’s metabolic processes—the signals that allow one part to respond to what is happening in another part.” It can be much easier to learn about a system’s elements than about its interconnections. With human-based systems, the information flows can be both formal and informal.

Systems, as a set applicable across numerous categories, biological, sociological, political, ecological, etc., can consist of common structures that repeatedly produce characteristic behaviors referred to as “archetypes”. They are responsible for some of the most intransigent and potentially dangerous problems but could be transformed, with a little systems understanding, to produce much more desirable behaviors by looking for leverage points for change. The problem is that we all too often not only fail to find them, but we also fail to look.

Meadows tells the story of The Blind Men and the Matter of the Elephant. ”This ancient Sufi story was told to teach a simple lesson but one that we often ignore: The behavior of a system cannot be known just by knowing the elements of which the system is made”.

While Meadows states that arbitrarily adding or taking away certain elements of a system can mean that you quickly no longer have the same system, she later explains can have limited applicability, ”Changing elements usually has the least effect on the system". It can be like someone changing their hair color and losing weight, often superficial in reality. They are still the same person. A system can generally remain to be itself, so long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact changing only slowly if at all, even with a complete substitution of its elements.

”Some people say that an old city neighborhood where people know each other and communicate regularly is a social system, and that a new apartment block full of strangers is not—not until new relationships (interconnections) arise and a system forms”.

System functions or purposes can be even harder to determine as they may not be explicitly spoken, written, or expressed. They can be best deduced through watching the operation of the system to see how the system behaves over time. This is similar to Stafford Beer’s POSIWID. Purposes should be deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals or as Chris Argyris put it, espoused goals.

Systems can be nested within systems, so there can then be purposes within purposes. However, they don't have to be in alignment with each other, Sub-purposes can come into conflict with each other and the overall purpose of the system, invariably when created by humans. Keeping sub-purposes and overall system purposes in harmony is an essential function of successful systems. Something nature is better at than are humans.

This means that humans can create systems that despite being seen as detrimental manage to maintain their existence regardless of how many times the elements (i.e. people) making up the system are changed. All the more difficult when a small portion of the human population benefits while controlling the inflows and outflows of the system. From the early days of the New Community Paradigms effort, I have labeled these entrenched systems.

My worry is that there is insufficient appreciation as to how difficult it can be to change such systems, all the more so if they are not even recognized as systems or our approach to them is not holistic but remains limited to reductive analysis through imposed top-down control management processes.

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